Found: The Beav

Beaver Castor canadensis

Moose Creek Canyon; 43° 34’07.11” N 111° 04’10.48” W Elevation 1990 meters

“Mamaaaa! The Lorax!” Zoe’s scream’s interrupted us. I looked at her mother waiting for the translation. Zoe’s pink mittened hand pointed at the grove of trees and bushes lining the road. It was the toothpicked trunk of a thick aspen that had Zoe so worked up.

It turns out the Lorax is one of Zoe’s favorite books. She and her mom read it together most nights and Zoe has taken to her three year old heart the repercussions that come with cutting down trees and how our endless need for thneeds plays in.

What Zoe didn’t realize is that this was the work of North America’s largest rodent, the beaver. Absorbed in conversation about who knows what, Cara and I had walked right past this evidence of the other world surrounding us. I’ve seen kids do that before—pick out things in the wild that adults miss either because we’re too busy looking at where we’re going or because we hold such tightly pre-conceived notions based on where we’ve been that we simply don’t see. At least someone in our trio had their eyes open instead of their mouth.

Under the cover of night beavers, with incisors like chop saws, had whittled the aspen tree down into tell tale points that no one around these parts takes the time to make when cutting firewood. A few more scrapes with their teeth would have fallen the tree, readying it to be dragged towards the water. Maybe they decided it was too big; maybe a coyote or one of the Chagrin wolves that frequent this drainage interrupted them. Maybe they just got lazy. I wondered how far away their lodge might be, if they’d adequately sealed the walls with grass, mud and rocks or if they were feeling the nip of winter’s chill.

Despite the low temperatures we were braving, if the beavers had done their job right their lodge wasn’t freezing. In part, that’s where the infamous dams come in. The dams, built upstream of the lodge, help submerge the structure so that it doesn’t freeze as the temperature drops. Dams also help access food all year round.

There are 25 different species of beaver. I couldn’t tell you whose handiwork this was except that it likely wasn’t the C. c. carolinensis from Carolina (unless it came in with the building boom) or the C. c. missouriensis. I’m guessing it was the C. c. Canadensis from our northern neighbor.

About seven miles down the road from where we were walking is one of those historic highway signs that I admit I rarely stop to read but nonetheless hold in high regard. It tells the story of the famous Rendezvous that occurred in Teton Valley (aka Pierre’s Hole) in 1832. This rowdy gathering of trappers, traders and Native Americans was one of the largest in the Rockies and beaver pelts were just one of the wares the men bargained for. Eventually the Rendezvous disintegrated into a battle between the Gros Ventre tribe and you guessed it, the white guys when one of them shot a member of the Gros Ventre unprovoked. Approximately three dozen men, women and children from both sides died.

As long as we’re talking about beavers and Pierre’s Hole, Beaver Dick Leigh is worth a mention. Yes you read right—that was his name. Beaver Dick Leigh was a Castor Canadensis trapper who came to Teton Valley a few decades after the disastrous Rendezvous. To honor him for his help in guiding government survey teams around the region, Grand Teton National Park’s Leigh and Jenny lakes are named after The Beav and his wife Jenny.

This summer one beaver and her family became quite the cause célèbre in Grand Teton National Park when they began construction on the Park’s Moose-Wilson Road. The industrious animals’ dam caused a back-up that threatened to flood the road, not to mention the threat of vehicular manslaughter charges against frustrated local drivers impatient with tourists parked in the middle of the road taking pictures of said beavers. (Although I admit getting stopped by a beaver dragging an aspen across the road was pretty cool.) Yellowstone has “bear jams.” Grand Teton has “beaver jams.” The Park did its best to trick the beavers with all sorts of clever inventions that would maintain the dam’s structure while allowing water to drain. Reviews were very mixed (and very firey). Good thing winter came. Stay tuned for next year’s series on the saga.

But Moose-Wilson commuters and Grand Teton National Park Engineers aren’t the only ones who regard beavers as pests. Around the world they’re relegated to vermin status. True, they do transform their environment (sort of like another species near and dear to our hearts), but scientists actually consider beavers as a keystone species in North America. (Patagonians on the other hand, rightfully have cause for concern as introduced beavers wreck havoc on Tierra Del Fuego. There’s legitimate fear about their reaching the mainland.) Their presence indicates a healthy level of biodiversity in which beavers play a key role. After all, their transformation leads to creation. Like meadows to wetlands, which support not only a range of aquatic and riparian flora and fauna but 43 percent of North America’s endangered species.

Suddenly, I’m inconsolably jealous.